Leonardo Sciascia

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Leonardo Sciascia’s novels usually develop from a single dramatic incident, through which his characters emerge slowly. The subtle analysis of poverty and deluded hope characteristic of his early essays is developed in his fiction to include the corruption of an entire social and political system. He goes beyond appearances to the core of each situation and brings out abuses and contradictions, finding in history the root causes for evils mistakenly held to be incurable. According to the writer’s definition, the present struggle for liberty and justice against political and social power is deeply rooted in the past.

The epigraphs of Sciascia’s novels indicate his emphasis on historical parallels and relationships. In Mafia Vendetta, his first novel, Sciascia uses a line from William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 (1591) to suggest that power and corruption existed then as they exist now. Mafia Vendetta, A Man’s Blessing, Equal Danger, and One Way or Another all deal with the social evils found in Sicily and elsewhere. Each of the four novels is based on actual facts. The story then unfolds like a puzzle: Everything falls into place, piece by piece, as its hidden pattern comes to light. Persuaded by the rigorous logic of theprotagonists, the reader understands the workings of society and is awakened to the dishonesty of the system.

Mafia Vendetta

Mafia Vendetta opens at a bus stop on a small town square where some fifty people are already seated on board the bus. A man in a dark suit—indicative of his social status—jumps on the running board as the bus is about to leave and suddenly falls to the ground, shot through the back. He was a small building contractor who had ignored the Mafia system of protection. By the time the police arrive, many of the witnesses to the crime have vanished; those who remain claim that they saw nothing. Later, a police informant and a young man who has seen the assassin are also gunned down. The informer had become so nervous after tipping off the police that he unwittingly betrayed himself. On the day he was shot, he had scribbled two names on an airmail letter, adding the words “I am dead. Regards” and his signature. Captain Bellodi, the officer in charge of the investigation, to whom the letter was addressed, feels deep compassion for the agonizing despair that prompted the helpless victim in his fatal decision to speak out.

The Captain is from Parma, and his way of thinking and acting underlines the cultural differences between the North and the South of Italy. Believing firmly that the Mafia must not go unpunished, he spares no effort to solve the case, but he is alone and helpless as he struggles against the law of omertà, the Mafia’s code of silence, and against complicity on the national as well as the local level.

The conspiracy of silence, a recurrent theme in all of Sciascia’s novels, originated in Sicily as a protective measure for the defense of the people against tyranny and injustice. In time, however, it degenerated into an oppressive social system and became one of the basic tools of the Mafia as it is known today: a secret society oriented toward the protection of vested interests.

Courageous and fearless, Captain Bellodi has Don Mariano Arena, the aging capo mafia whose name was one of the two on the informer’s last letter, brought to the barracks for the twenty-four hours of preliminary arrest, like any other common criminal. Sciascia’s account of the interrogation is a masterpiece of realism and dramatic urgency; particularly compelling is...

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the characterization of the Mafia chieftain. Don Mariano divides humanity into five categories. The Captain falls into the first: “Men! and they are few.” He recognizes the Captain’s integrity, but, like all Sicilians, Don Mariano is deeply devoted to his family. Moreover, he has always been protected by theomertà of both the honest and the dishonest. Through his network of connections with influential politicians, he succeeds easily in sabotaging Bellodi’s investigation. In fact, when it becomes apparent that Captain Bellodi is too close to the truth, he is reassigned to his home city, Parma, in Northern Italy, where he sadly ponders Sicily’s crushing heritage of injustice and death. After Bellodi’s departure, everything he has accomplished is undone “like a house of cards blown down by the winds of incontrovertible alibis.”

A Man’s Blessing

Similar concerns inform Sciascia’s third novel, A Man’s Blessing. The Italian title, A ciascuno il suo (to each his due), derives from the Latin expression unicuique suum, a term referring to a principle of Roman law that means simply that the punishment should fit the crime. Here the concept is applied ironically.

The story develops from a dramatic incident, a double murder, out of which the characters’ and the Sicilians’ world gradually takes form. One afternoon, an anonymous letter is delivered to a pharmacist, Manno, informing him that he has been sentenced to death for something he has done. The honest man and his friends dismiss it as a joke. On August 23, 1964, the opening day of the hunting season, both the pharmacist and his constant hunting companion, Dr. Roscio, are mysteriously shot. The wheels of a ponderous bureaucracy begin to turn slowly and ineffectually.

The main character, Professor Laurana, begins his own investigation, out of intellectual curiosity, starting from the first detail that the police had dismissed as insignificant. When the letter containing the death threat was held open by an officer of the carabinieri, with the light of the lamp falling slantingly on it, Professor Laurana happened to notice the word unicuique on the reverse side of the threat, which had been made up with words cut out and pasted on the paper. After the murder, Laurana realizes that the word represents the first clue to the mystery, because it had been cut from the masthead of L’osservatore romano, a Vatican newspaper. Despite this deduction and several similar intuitions worthy of the great detectives, Laurana is essentially a parody of the brilliant, eccentric amateur. Indeed, he is frequently shown to be quite obtuse, and his solution of the mystery is largely fortuitous. The corruption he discovers is social as well as personal: In this case, the Mafia is represented by the “respectable” lawyer Rosello, a cousin of Dr. Roscio’s lovely widow, to whom Laurana is attracted. Dr. Roscio had known of his wife’s affair with her cousin and had been planning to blackmail the lawyer Rosello. The pharmacist, then, was an innocent victim whose murder was intended to distract attention from the murder of the real target: Dr. Roscio.

Sciascia’s vivid rendition of small-town gossip, of ambiguous remarks dropped at the men’s club and in cafés, and of family ties and old prejudices, all of which are brought out during the investigation, reveal a society not only Sicilian but universal. Among the novel’s stimulating characters are the bold, frank parish priest and old Benito di Montalmo, both reminiscent of many of Pirandello’s characters. In a real sense, the whole town becomes the protagonist in this novel, even though the story centers on Laurana, who naïvely discloses all of his clues to the two cousins, Rosello and Mrs. Roscio. At the end, the beautiful widow invites Laurana to a café in a nearby town but fails to appear. A disappointed Laurana, on his way to the railroad station, accepts a ride from a casual acquaintance and thus seals his fate. Laurana’s intellectual value, in an irrational world, is summed up cynically in the brief and merciless comment of his three male friends at the end of the book: “He was a fool!” In other words, he failed to observe the traditional code of silence and accordingly was killed.

Equal Danger

In Equal Danger, Sciascia analyzes the legal system through an incident that takes place in an imaginary city where court, police, politicians, protestors, and journalists are equally involved. Complications arise when Cres, who has served five years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, takes the law into his own hands upon his release, murdering the first two judges who sentenced him.

During the subsequent inquiry, Inspector Rogas, assigned to the investigation, discovers a wide net of corruption that includes the two murdered judges. At this point, he is ordered to suspend the inquiry. He rebels and begins to consider Cres no longer as a criminal but as a dispenser of justice. Later, he decides to join Amar, a revolutionary leader, in his plot to overthrow the state to bring about a new real order. Both are mysteriously killed in a museum where they were to meet. Once again, Sciascia confirms that the road to truth is fraught with danger and that misuse of reason results in disaster.

One Way or Another

In a completely different setting, One Way or Another elaborates upon the issue of the entangled logic of justice. On September 1, 1971, Sciascia made a note of his impressions of a religious retreat; the note appears in his book Nero su nero (1979), a Stendhalian journal spanning a period of ten years. This single entry became the genesis of the novel. Hidden in an isolated and unspecified milieu, Don Gaetano, a learned but ambiguously diabolic priest, manages the monastery hotel of Zafer. He organizes spiritual retreats for prominent men, including government ministers, members of Parliament, industrialists, and academics. What is supposed to be a spiritual gathering for the good of the soul turns into a vacation and, between one rosary and another, provides the opportunity to work out profitable negotiations and to plot intrigues. A clever man of the cloth, Don Gaetano fosters corruption.

The story is told by an anonymous painter who by chance stops at the monastery and who cannot refrain from investigating on his own the reasons behind the mysterious murders that occur during the retreat. Once again, however, the truth is not entirely unraveled. The progression that began with the honorable society’s racket in Mafia Vendetta and became a crime of passion in A Man’s Blessing and a personal vendetta against the judges in Equal Danger culminates in One Way or Another in all-pervasive political corruption. Particularly in these two later novels, Sciascia dwells on the hypocrisies and compromises that lie beneath the surface of respectability.


In Candido, a novel inspired by Voltaire’s eighteenth century masterpiece, innocence and reason once again clash with the realities of an absurd system. Born one night between July 9 and 10, 1943, after a bombardment, Candido’s life is in continuous conflict with the lives of other people, including those of the members of his close family. His insatiable curiosity and desire for truth often get him into trouble. It is not his intention to reveal the hypocrisy of those around him, but he does so by a fortuitous series of incidents: He uncovers his father’s illicit activities and causes his suicide; he reveals his grandfather’s Fascist past; and he is punished for his honesty and generosity. When Candido inherits his family estate, he is not allowed to cultivate the land, and when he tries to bequeath his property first to the hospital and then to the Italian Communists, some incongruous laws and regulations keep him from doing so. Candido’s independence of spirit and love of truth estrange him from all society. After traveling outside Sicily, in Northern Italy and abroad, Candido and his second mistress move to Paris, away from false ideology. This justifies the ambiguous subtitle of Candido’s vanished “dream dreamed in Sicily.”

Sciascia’s prose is vivid, incisive, and richly allusive. Enlivened by a subtle, oblique irony, it underlines the ills derived from a system based on compromise and subterfuge. At times, his language is complex, rich with metaphors, inversions, quotations, and indirect literary allusions. Sciascia uses Sicilian colloquialisms most frequently in his early works, adding a touch of spontaneity and color.

Like the writers of the Enlightenment, however, Sciascia is above all committed to clarity, to freedom from cant. The bitter defeat of Captain Bellodi and the deaths of Professor Laurana, Inspector Rogas, and others are redeemed by these characters’ defiance, their refusal to surrender to injustice and compromise; all remain true to themselves, like Sciascia the man and the writer.


Sciascia, Leonardo (Vol. 8)